On the Thursday morning I chaired a plenary session featuring Andrea Witcomb, Susan Cross and Denis Byrne. This session was broadly intended to kick off a day that was focused on the role of interpretation to give voice to sites and collections, with the three speakers exploring the media of space, story and place respectively.
Andrea Witcomb: space, affect and difficult stories
Andrea Witcomb talked about the role of immersive environments in interpreting traumatic experiences. She began with a critique of the experience at the Watch House at Old Melbourne Gaol, in which visitors take the role of prisoners being processed. Andrea posited that the role play and theatre of the experience had become a superficial end in itself, preventing visitors from considering the social significance of the site in greater depth – for instance exploring the complex social and power relationships between the prisoners and the police. The pacing of the experience, she claimed, left no place for contemplation. Her implication was that the experience did not successfully convey key parts of its interpretive message, much to the disquiet of some of my interpretation colleagues (who in 2009 had singled this project out as an example of excellence).
In did appear that Andrea’s critique was based on observation of the behaviour of a limited number of visitors over the course of just a couple of visits. The visitors’ own perspective, both during and subsequent to the experience, was an absent voice in the criticism. Did visitors engage in the theatre in an (apparently) light-hearted way and then reflect more deeply on it subsequently? Or is this possibility of depth indeed crowded out by the theatrics? Based on the available evidence, I’d contend that we do not know. However, it does seem fair to say that there is quite a disconnect between how the site is viewed from an academic perspective compared to a more practice-led one.
Andrea’s second example was a holocaust memorial, showing how design of immersive environments can be used as an interpretive tool to create a more nuanced message (some people thought the implied direct comparison between the Watch House and a Holocaust memorial was unfair; I’m not sure if this was the intent or not).
Given my research into the way visitors respond to environmental cues in exhibitions, I found Andrea’s descriptions on the uses of space, light and colour to evoke affective responses interesting, although I would have liked to have seen more about visitors’ responses. Having said that, her call to have more space for listening, dialogue and internal reflection in interpretive spaces was a compelling one.
Susan Cross: “Interpretelling”
As a counterpoint to Andrea Witcomb’s talk about space as an interpretive device, Susan Cross spoke about the interpretive value of story – coining the term “Interpretelling” as a mode of interpretation through storytelling. She practised what she preached, getting out from behind the lectern to add a level of performance to her keynote.
The key premise of Susan’s keynote was that humans are natural storytellers – it is the way we preserve and perpetuate the things that have meaning to us. Stories are contagious. Getting people talking is the ‘silver bullet’ of interpretation; it means our stories will continue to live on and be shared.
Good interpretation can pick up its cues from good storytelling: compelling characters; a narrative arc; suspense, revelation, surprise twists, resolution. (Looking back at this now, it reminds me of a workshop facilitated by theatre director Teresa Crea at Adelaide Gaol, which was organised by the SA Branch of Interpretation Australia in 2009. We built our own stories inspired by and based upon the Gaol’s history, with some artistic license allowed. . . )
So while the storytelling ideas may not have been particularly new to me, Susan distilled the key points into a presentation that was well crafted, paced and delivered in a way that held the audience’s attention – in short, she told a story. (This made a refreshing change from the far too many presentations I saw that were essentially papers read out in a monotone – I can read it later online thanks! </rant>)
Another idea that Susan presented was the concept of broadening the ‘storytelling circle’ – making our stories relevant to a broader audience (particularly across cultures, to shed light on meanings that are implicitly shared within a cultural group), and also listening to the stories of others to add richness to our own experiences. This can be particularly important for sharing difficult histories and getting to grips with the less savoury legacies of our past.
I’m looking forward to participating in Susan’s interpretive writing workshop later this week.
Denis Byrne: Absent Stories & Seductive Mythologies
Rounding off the session, archaeologist Denis Byrne talked about the interpretive potential of place – and the implications of choosing to highlight (or ignore) certain footprints of history on the landscape.
Denis described his experience with cultural sites in Bali – between political upheaval at home and the imposition of assumptions from abroad, many stories of Bali’s historic and cultural sites remain silent. Creeping into this absence was a kind of mythology derived from the Western depiction of Bali as an island paradise.
This story was juxtaposed with Denis’ more recent work on post 1788 Aboriginal culture, and how it has evolved in this time (contrary to assumptions that Aboriginal culture did not develop and change in post-contact history).
It was the first time I had chaired a plenary session but it appeared to go well, with the questions and answers at the end bringing the threads of the three talks together into a single broader narrative about the roles of space, place and story. I also managed to introduce the concept of soliciting questions from the floor via Twitter – as far as I know a MA / IA conference first!